As a founding member of Monty Python — you know, the greatest comedy troupe in the world — Eric Idle has helped shaped modern comedy as we know it, from the absurdity of The Kids In The Hall and South Park to The Daily Show and Key & Peele. But such success has not meant he’s resting on his lauded laurels. He has continued flying the Python flag with the global hit musical Spamalot and the comedy oratorio Not The Messiah (He’s A Very Naughty Boy). Over the last dozen years he has also appeared four times on The Simpsons as film producer Declan Desmond, told the Bush Administration to kiss off with “The FCC Song,” and cheerfully spread Yuletide jeer with “Fuck Christmas.” He and longtime musical collaborator John Du Prez are also working on a new (non-Python) musical production for next year. No rest for the cheeky.
This weekend the Tribeca Film Festival will host a mini-Monty Python festival. The five surviving members will attend the 40th anniversary screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the premiere of the documentary The Meaning Of Live, which goes behind the scenes of their sold-out farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena last year. Two other films, Life Of Brian and The Meaning Of Life, featuring post-film chats with Python members, are also being screened, and they’re hitting The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
Idle acknowledges that it will be a busy weekend but, as he quips, it’s easier than writing.
Some people said you did the O2 shows for the money — you did it because you got to hang out with a lot of hot chicks on stage, right?
Yes, of course. I got the job of editing the script and directing, so I went straight for the girls. You’ve got a bunch of 70 year-olds on stage, how do we put some energy and some beauty and some skill on stage? We’ll have them singing and dancing. The Python songs are kind of nice and rude, and it made the whole show brighter and more unexpected. People would’ve been happy if we just done on the sketches, but we went to great lengths and great expense to put on more than necessary. I think that was a very Python thing to do.
The 40th anniversary screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. What are your feelings about watching it, at this point?
It’ll be fun to see that again. Sorry, I was being ironic. Having spent five years adapting it into a musical, I know it quite well, but it will be fun to see the other guys.
What was it like working with Stephen Hawking on the revamped version of "The Galaxy Song” which appeared in the O2 show?
There’s a new documentary that we’re opening on Saturday at the Tribeca, and that shows me and [physicist] Brian Cox going to film it with him. We play him the track, and he smiles. It’s really sweet. “We just made Stephen Hawking smile,” which is lovely.
I’ve heard it said that scientists are often game for a lot of silly stuff. They like to ham it up.
Scientists absolutely do, as they are the new chefs or the new hip people, aren’t they?
They really should be.
Oh yeah, they’ve got much more interesting things to say than most people. They’re stars now. The scientists have become quite cool because in the ‘90s we discovered so many more new things about the universe, like that it was expanding and growing faster. So we have this whole new thing called dark energy, which nobody knows really much about, and dark matter, which the universe is composed largely of. It’s now on the cutting edge because everything is new. We’re learning more and more, so you can be up to date with it, and it’s fairly easy to understand if you don’t do math.
Over the years, people have come to know and love songs like “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” and “The Philosophers Song”. Are there any songs you think are underrated in the Monty Python canon?
I like writing new ones, which is more fun. You do [older songs] for certain events and certain things. I find that it’s nice to write songs that have a basis of something other than “I love you, you love me, get your knickers off.” I think the thing about humor is it’s a sort of habit of how you look at things. I didn’t stop being funny once Python stopped. You just find other things to be funny in other forms. Songs are great places to be funny. They’re kind of unexpected and have a nice shape to them, and sometimes you can get to great rhymes. My favorite rhyme probably of all time is "Go tell the elves to fuck themselves, it’s Christmastime again”. When it popped out I said, “Oh, perfect, that’s really sweet.”
Is there a way we could turn “Fuck Christmas” into a commercial holiday song?
It is. I’ve done it all over the bloody place. I do it for Brian Cox. He does this Christmas show in London where they have science and rock 'n roll and comedy. I get to sing “Fuck Christmas.”
Monty Python’s Total Rubbish CD box set came out last fall. Nine albums in total!
One day I’ll have to listen to them. I think there’s a lot of hidden material in there that we’ve totally forgotten about because we would do the albums separate from the TV shows. I produced a couple of the records, including Contractual Obligation, and the collected one with of all the songs [Monty Python Sings]. It was fun editing the best Python songs together because it’s quite a canon of strange song material. You can hear it every day and play it again and again and again. You can’t play a sketch again and again. "Let’s hear 'The Cheese Shop’ again.” It makes you laugh, and then the second time it makes you laugh less. But with a song, because of melody and tune and backing, you can hear it again. I must sit down and listen to them because I think there is a wealth of unexploited material in there that we could actually find uses for.
The late George Harrison bankrolled Life Of Brian, and his Handmade Films company did a bunch of Python-related stuff — Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, a couple of Michael Palin films, and Nuns On The Run, which you were in.
Life of Brian was the first, and they set up Handmade Films to make it. Ironically, they set it up to lose money. It was a real Bialystock and Bloom moment when George and Denis O'Brien had problems because they suddenly started to make money. They were supposed to lose money.
What are your favorite recollections of George Harrison? What do you miss the most about him?
I miss him every day. He was just so funny, so sweet, and so honest. He treated everybody equally, with great love and concern, even if it was the waiter just coming in bringing a cheese sandwich. He would be just as nice to him or her as he was anybody else. He had a really great attitude to life because he realized quite early on that it didn’t matter how famous or popular or successful you were, you’re going to die, so he set about preparing himself for his death. And sadly…
It came too early.
It was very much too early, and I’m sorry he missed a lot of other stuff. He missed Spamalot, he didn’t see O2, and he would’ve loved it.
Thinking back on The Meaning Of Life, which would be a better way to go: being chased by a pack of naked, jiggling women over a cliff or eating the salmon mousse?
Maybe a bit of both. We gave it [the running death] to the only gay guy because the rest of us would’ve slowed down a little bit.
Looking to the future, is there any project that you’ve been dying to do?
We [John Du Prez and I] are working on a new show, and it’ll be out next year. It’s a musical, but it is not really so much a Broadway show, it’s a different kind of show. I like to try and change the playing field so you don’t think you know what you’re doing, you know what I mean? You’re exploring a different area, which brings it to life. That’s why we did Not The Messiah as an oratorio because nobody does comedy oratorio. [Laughs.] There is a very good reason for it. I’m proud to have it done that around the world — we did that at the [Royal] Albert Hall, the Sydney Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall. It’s nice to do something that silly on a big scale, and that’s the result of Python being popular and continuing to be successful.
What would you say is the most valuable life lesson that you’ve learned?
I think life is a series of lessons. It doesn’t last forever, and you’ve got to savor it and enjoy it. It’s such a privilege and such an unlikely thing that you are that if you’re wasting your life being gloomy you’re missing a lot.
I’m beginning to learn that.
Good. When one starts to get serious, you get less controlled by your dick.
Bryan Reesman is a veteran entertainment journalist and longtime contributor to Playboy. He still doesn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, but he likes their comfy chairs.